Orchards, particularly traditional ones, are invaluable refuges for many bird species, whether in the heart of a city or a rural village. They provide a tasty range of arthropods (such as beetles and spiders) and insects for familiar birds such as Robins, Wrens and Dunnocks.
Often relatively sheltered, orchards have the added attraction of hedges for nesting and ponds for drinking and bathing.
The best habitat tends to have trees of varying ages, the more varieties the better. This means a long season of fruit (fresh and decaying) and nest sites for hole-nesting species with plenty of meadow grass – either mown or grazed – for a wide number of butterflies and moths. If wildflowers are also present, the species list goes even higher.
Mistletoe has a long association with orchards, as it commonly grows on apple trees. The sticky berries are spread by the Mistle Thrush, among others. After consuming the fruit, they instinctively wipe the gloopy sap on a branch, which also contains seeds for the next generation.
They are aggressive birds and will defend their raggedy nest and young from all comers, including much larger species like Magpies and Jays. I have even watched them chase off cats, happy to scramble into the cover of a nearby bush!
In spring, buds of fruit trees – especially cherries – attract Bullfinches. These handsome, portly finches were once common enough to be considered pests, but now I think even farmers are pleased to see them, such is their scarcity.
They are shy birds; even their call is quiet and easily missed. I associate two other finches with orchards: Chaffinch and Goldfinch. The latter build impossibly neat nests from moss and hair, well hidden in a hedge, or sometimes an overgrown rose bush. They feed on seeds of all kinds, but have a thing for thistles; their painted faces and yellow wings brighten up many a dull day.
Increasing warmth attracts aerial feeders above orchards. Starlings enjoy a truly omnivorous diet, but are more than adequate at hawking flying ants, beetles, and soldier flies rising above the canopy on warm afternoons. Swallows though make it look effortless; they hoover up aphids and gnats with endless gliding and looping.
Another bird attracted not just by abundant insects, but also the cavities in veteran trees, is the Spotted Flycatcher. These elegant migrants are often one of the last to return in May. They sit, almost motionless, on the very tops and edges of trees, but their heads are always moving, searching for the next meal. And they rarely miss a target, always returning to the same dead branch.
Old orchards are great places to look for this declining species, as they offer nesting holes in gnarly trunks and sometimes in amongst creepers such as honeysuckle. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are fond of old orchards, although they are considerably more elusive than their Great Spotted relative. For a start, they are much smaller, only the size of a House Sparrow, and much quieter.
Listen out for a high-pitched ringing call, or the familiar drumming on a dead branch. Woodpeckers don’t sing, so the drumming does the same job of marking a territory boundary. They excavate a nest in decaying trees and hunt for wood-boring beetle larvae and spiders. There is evidence that tidying up old or dangerous trees is depriving them of valuable nest sites.
Blackcaps are another bird to look out for – small sleek warblers that have bucked the general trend and increased in number. They are widely thought to benefit from both milder winters and more bird feeders. In spring, their loud, fluty song can carry some distance from early April onwards. They need dense brambles or low bushes in which to nest and will make light work of any fruit in later months.
by Pete Mantle, supporter of The Orchard Project and keen birder